"Silents Are Golden" interviewed author Brent E. Walker at the 2010 Cinecon in Hollywood, CA., about his new book

Mack Sennett's Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies with Biographies of Players and Personnel
(McFarland and Co., 2010)

SAG: What started your interest in Mack Sennett films?

WALKER: My interest goes back to when I watched Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges on television. There were times when they would show silent films, too. I remember the Robert Youngson compilations. For example, his second one, "When Comedy Was King" -- I was fascinated by this film. The Sennett comedies that were used in those Youngson compilations were mostly the Pathé films from the twenties, and there is a lot of movement going on. I just enjoyed the pacing of the films. I knew who Charlie Chaplin was, but these others - I wanted to know more about who they were.

SAG: When did you start your research on the book?

WALKER: About 1979, a friend and I shared an interest in the Bowery Boys, or The Dead End Kids, and, although I enjoyed these films, I was drawn more to the Sennett films -- but there wasn't anything significant we could find on either The Bowery Boys or Mack Sennett. So we went to the county library and began researching. That's when I started taking filmographies from the books that were available like David Turconi's book, Kalton C. Lahue's book - and looking at the synopses to find out what the plots were. I'd see strange titles, like "Help! Help! Hydrophobia!," and wanted to know what happened in these films. I collected Blackhawk films, and just from the few that I saw, my interest was piqued - I think because these people were from some strange other world than my life at the time.

Over the next 10 years, I didn't do a lot, but around 1989, I got one of the early Mac computers and began to compile the information I had in my filmographies. At the same time, about 1990, the Mack Sennett collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences became available. I had been going there for about 10 years off and on, and I knew Sennett had donated his collection but it hadn't been catalogued yet.

When that became available, I began going through the script files, the paper files for the films, the still files on every film they had and copied down the information. By that time, my work on the filmography took a more detailed course of finding out who all of these obscure people were, how the films were made, how the directors worked, how long it took to make them, as well as researching the biographies of these people.

Obviously, it was easier to find information on people like Chaplin, Swanson, Normand, and Arbuckle, but there were others that I couldn't even find a birth or death date - or they were mixed up with other people by the same name. For example, there was a Billy Gilbert who was not the same Billy Gilbert we know from later years - and whose biographical information was never published. It became kind of an archaeological expedition into history - the films and the people who made them. Many of them died young or left the industry. A lot of them pioneered innovations like matte photography and trick photography as early as 1913 - the Keystone cameramen were ahead of their time. By the 1920's, they had patented some of these processes and were working at major studios - people like Fred Jackman, Vernon Walker, etc. Dramatic directors like Frank Lloyd started out with Sennett. Although Sennett was often writer, producer, director and even comedian - his biggest skill was taking these people, recognizing their talent and training them. The comedies he made are so influential on later comedies such as The Three Stooges Columbia films which were mostly made with gagmen, directors and others who worked at Sennett. Even when Arbuckle went out on his own, it was still the Sennett methodology.

SAG: What years are covered in your book?

WALKER: It really contains information on Sennett from his birth in 1880 until his death in 1960, but it's not a biography per se. I cover his early years briefly, but the focus of the book is Mack Sennett's studio and Mack Sennett the person in films which pretty much starts in 1908 when he began working at Biograph. I have a whole chapter on his Biograph years as both an actor and a director and a filmography for the Biograph years - then the years that he actually operated his own studio - first as Keystone and then Mack Sennett films - a 21-year period from 1912 t to 1933. He was at Biograph from 1908 to 1912. Keystone started in 1912, and then in 1917 he broke from Keystone under his own name which would remain until 1933 when he went bankrupt. After that, he directed a few comedies, was technical director on some films, and, periodically, he would be involved in a film project although he was retired or semi-retired. A lot of the people who worked for him continued in films in a variety of capacities - bit player, stunt man, assistant director, writer, comedian, etc. Some of those were still working well into the 1960's -- on the same lot Sennett started.

SAG: Who are some of the stars who started out with Sennett and went on to more successful careers?

WALKER: Many of them started out as Sennett Bathing girls - Gloria Swanson, Phyllis Haver, Marie Prevost, Louise Fazenda, Then there are people like Frank Lloyd who won Oscars as best director, and Frank Capra who also worked for Sennett as a gag man. There's a story about both Frank Capra and Frank Lloyd being up for the Best Director award in 1934. Will Rogers, who was presenting the award, said, "Come get it, Frank," not even thinking there were two "Franks." Frank Capra said he started to get up and walk toward the podium, and then it turned out to be Frank Lloyd, so he walked back to his seat very embarrassed. However, the very next year, the award went to Frank Capra for "It Happened One Night." Both of these famous directors worked for Mack Sennett.

Robert Young's older brother, Joe, was a Sennett comedian in the twenties. Everyone knows Robert Young as a popular actor in the thirties and forties and then for "Father Knows Best" and "Marcus Welby, M.D." on television. His first official film is listed as a Charlie Chan film in 1931, but in 1927, you can see him as an extra in some Sennett films.

SAG: This was around the time Sennett went bankrupt, so are we to assume that his sound films just weren't as successful as his silent films?

WALKER: In the twenties he had made a fortune in oil, minerals and real estate - he actually had done better at those investments than his films - either as fact or through creative accounting. He would make these shorts that were a part of his distribution agreement, but then he would make features that went above his distribution agreement - then he would try to find a distributor. After Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and Griffith got together to form United Artists in 1919, Sennett got together with Thomas Ince, Maurice Tourneur and some other producers to form a group called "Associated Producers." He made features for that company, but it was eventually dissolved into First National. It seemed difficult for him to make ends meet after that. At one time, Hal Roach and Sennett were both with Pathe, but Roach later switched over to MGM. Sennett went with Education in 1929. He had talked to Paramount and some others about distributors, but nothing came of these talks until the early 1930's after he had begun distributing through Educational. To add to his problems, the film industry was having a tough time after the stock market crash. He wrapped up with Paramount in 1932 or 1933 which is where he made the W.C. Fields films ["The Dentist," "The Barber Shop," "The Pharmacist," and "The Fatal Glass of Beer'], arguably his best sound shorts.

In 1933 the bank closures were taking place, and Paramount was having its own problems, and it just came to an end. When you think about it, the fact that he had his own independent studio operating for 21 years - it's pretty astounding, especially when you look at his peers. D.W. Griffith, for example, was his mentor, and although he had his own studio for a while, he was working for others by the second half of the twenties. There was a niche for the two-reelers that kept Sennett going in the twenties. Then Hal Roach came along and pretty much surpassed Sennett. By the late twenties, Roach had a bigger stable of names like Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase and Our Gang. Sennett really didn't have the names, even though he hired people like Bing Crosby for a few shorts. As a whole, the sound films didn't have the quality of the silents, either.

SAG: Describe your book and what can be found between the covers.

WALKER: Actually, it's three books in one. There are 663 pages - a large sized book with a very detailed index. The first section is an overview of Mack Sennett, his life in Hollywood and his films. It describes his activities in the films he was making, plus a lot of information about production and the studio. The first third of the book is the part you can sit down in your easy chair and get the overview about Sennett. The second part is the filmography, the most detailed filmography of Sennett every published. I've viewed about 500 of the 1,000 or so films Sennett produced - either all or part of them. A lot of the Keystone films didn't give credits, and so many of the players were never identified. Through my research, I've figured out who most of these people were.

SAG: What does each film entry give the reader?

WALKER: Each film entry gives the title, the release date, the length, the director, and any other production credits. From the Triangl films on, I usually have the cinematographer, and later the writer and editor and most of the technical credits with the names of the cast and their character roles in the films when possible. I have a synopsis for each film and cross references for those gags and stories that were remade. Sennett not only remade his own stories, but you see his stories resurface in Laurel & Hardy or Three Stooges films, for example. Any time the footage was excerpted for other films, I identify those, too, such as the Robert Youngson films, Paul Killiam compilations, "Comedy Capers" and any reissue titles. For a lot of the productions, I have access to the production start and end dates, budgets from around the time he dropped Keystone and they became "Mack Sennett" films. There are also about 300 Biograph films detailed. All totaled, there are about 1,000 films Sennett produced.

Then, there is a biography section - about 300 biographies on people who appeared in Sennett films and worked behind the scenes as directors, writers, cinematographers, editors and other roles. I tired to include the obscure people, as well as the more recognizable names. Sometimes I would encounter two people with the same name. There were two Dave Andersons, two Jack Dillons, and two Jack Richardsons, one who was a comedian and another who was a dramatic actor who actually appeared in one Sennett sound film. It's amazing that a lot of them had very tragic lives in later years. However, some of them went on to successful careers outside of films. It's an amazing cross section of lives. You read the biographical section, and it's almost like reading what life was like in the 1910's,1920's and 1930's.

SAG: So, by reading the index, one can easily see the films in which Ford Sterling appeared, for example?

WALKER: Yes. That took several months. My eyes were almost as cross-eyed as Ben Turpin's when I was finished with that because I wanted the filmography not only to indicate the page on which the person was mentioned, but every film in which he or she appeared. So I created some film indexing numbers for every film. For example, if someone's on page 132, after that, if you look in parentheses, you'll see some film numbers.

For anyone who's researching someone who worked for Sennett at some point, you can look them up in this index and find accurate information about them. Unfortunately, Sennett created many myths about his life, especially in his autobiography The King of Comedy, which came out in 1954. Gene Fowler's 1934 biography on him, Father Goose, is a very undependable resource on Sennett's life, too. Then there were those people who came out of the woodwork over the years and said they were one of the original Keystone Cops. I have one chapter in this book where I try to pinpoint the genealogy of the Keystone Cops and their first appearances in the Keystones.

SAG: How satisfying is it now to finally have Mack Sennett's Fun Factory published after over 30 years of work?

WALKER: When I was going to the library and trying to find information on Sennett - this is the book I would have wanted, so I'm hoping future researchers will find this a substantial resource - and, hopefully, they'll find something out there to add to it, too. It's the book with that I've always wanted on Sennett, so I'm very satisfied with the results.

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